Schools' safety advocate says visibility is key

Kelley Hodge, who starts Monday as the Philadelphia district's safe schools watchdog: "My role is to advocate for victims."
Kelley Hodge, who starts Monday as the Philadelphia district's safe schools watchdog: "My role is to advocate for victims." (LAURENCE KESTERSON / Staff Photographer)
Posted: December 03, 2011

Former prosecutor and juvenile court expert Kelley Hodge will begin her role Monday as the Philadelphia School District's new safety watchdog, and she wants everyone to know it.

"I'm going to make myself clearly present in any type of forum where I can let people know I'm here," Hodge said in an interview Friday from School District headquarters, where her office will be. "My role is to advocate for victims so that the victim knows there is someone to turn to."

To start, posters and fliers will go out. A hotline will be established. She will attend School Reform Commission meetings. And she will visit schools deemed the most dangerous in the district to let staff and students know she is on the job and to gain insight into the district's disciplinary and safety networks, she said.

The position of safe schools advocate, a job funded and appointed by the state, has been vacant for more than two years. Following calls from Auditor General Jack Wagner and a seven-part series in The Inquirer this year that found violence in the district was widespread and underreported, legislators reactivated the office over the summer and gave it dedicated funding. It was moved from the state Department of Education to the Pennsylvania Commission on Crime and Delinquency.

Hodge, 40, the former assistant chief of the juvenile unit in the Philadelphia District Attorney's Office, said the Inquirer series "highlighted what has been probably a systemic problem and it's something that clearly needs to be addressed."

She said her new job offers a "perfect mix" from her 14-year legal career, which has included juveniles, education, the law, and the plights of victims and offenders.

"Working with education and kids just was kind of the icing," she said.

She said she would draw on her many connections in the District Attorney's Office to fully explore cases and issues in the schools.

"It will allow for some good communication," she said.

Hodge was recommended by John Delaney, a deputy in the District Attorney's Office.

"She was an excellent prosecutor, well-respected by her colleagues, opposing counsel, and judges," Delaney said. "She understands and appreciates the many ways crime affects victims. I look forward to working with her in her new role, where she will be a tremendous advocate for students and staff in our city schools."

Pedro Ramos, the new School Reform Commission chairman, welcomed Hodge.

"It's potentially very useful," he said. "It underscores the primacy of safety for parents and children."

Hodge will be paid $95,000 in her new role. Her office will run on a budget of $400,000, from which she will hire both an administrative and a legal assistant.

Her office is charged with assisting victims of violence, monitoring how the district reports crime to the city and state, and compiling an annual report detailing the level of violence in the school system and how the district is handling it.

When the job was created by the state in 2000, it was the first of its kind in the country. It followed a searing investigation by legislators who were highly critical of the district's disciplinary and safety procedures.

The job was first held by lawyer Harvey Rice, then by Jack Stollsteimer, a former assistant U.S. attorney.

State officials cited budget woes when they closed the office in 2009, but the shutdown came amid criticism of Stollsteimer for spending too much time attacking the district and not enough time helping victims.

Hodge said she found the district to be cooperative and helpful in her work at the District Attorney's Office, and she does not view her new role as being contentious.

"I expect I will be treated in a very amicable fashion," she said. "If there's an issue or problem, let's try collectively to figure out the best way to try and fix it."

Born in Abington, Hodge grew up in nearby Roslyn and later Horsham, and attended Catholic schools. She went to the University of Virginia, where she majored in foreign affairs and Spanish, then enrolled in law school.

She served as an intern at the U.S. Department of Education, where she developed an interest in education law and did youth advocacy work in a clinical program at the University of Richmond law school, helping children with mental-health problems and other challenges.

When she graduated, she worked for the public defender's office in Richmond for seven years before returning to Philadelphia to join the District Attorney's Office in 2004.

Hodge first was a prosecutor, then became assistant chief and later chief of the Municipal Court unit until that unit folded. Then she moved to the juvenile unit.

She lives in Mount Airy with her husband, a program manager for a financial company, and her 4-year-old son.

Hodge said she would spend much of the coming weeks learning as much as she could about the district and its safety and disciplinary procedures. She likely will speak to both Rice and Stollsteimer and look at their work, she said.

"I intend to listen a whole lot before I speak about anything that I see as in need of improvement," she said.

The hotline number will be established soon, she said. In the meantime, Hodge can be reached at her office number, 215-656-5381.


Contact staff writer Susan Snyder at 215-854-4693 or ssnyder@phillynews.com.

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